Remote High School? Teachers Make it Work

The graphic shows two teachers who discuss teaching remotely.

We had the chance to speak with two high school English teachers, Kimberly, a ninth and twelfth grade educator at a Westchester public school, and Tori, an eleventh grade educator at a NYC public school. Both equally as passionate about their students’ academic success and personal well-beings, the two shared their unprecedented obstacles during remote teaching and patterns witnessed in students throughout the last few months. 

Thank you, Tori and Kimberly, for being so candid and thoughtful during our conversation. Your experiences and reflections are greatly appreciated. 

Two friends from Columbia University’s Teachers College, Tori and Kimberly reunited to share their experiences with e-learning during COVID-19. After Kimberly’s school closed temporarily in March, she didn’t expect to finish the year virtually. Tori, on the other hand, anticipated the shutdown because NYC public schools closed a little later. She had a better idea of what was coming. 

Both Kimberly and Tori had pleasant experiences transitioning to e-learning, yet their experiences were remarkably different. Kimberly recalls how with “any decision that was being made in the school, the teachers were very much involved.” Her school’s principal included the team by creating a faculty-wide Google Doc to allow contributions and feedback. Kimberly says this transparency “made a very difficult situation feel a little bit more manageable because we had a voice in what was going on.” In Tori’s experience, teachers continued to go into the classroom during the first week of closure. Tori found this helpful as it allowed teachers unfamiliar with technology to get assistance prior to the start of remote learning. It also gave her time to get technology to students who do not have any at home. 

Teachers face the lockdown and a lot of changes

Tori experienced a major logistical issue that Kimberly did not face — the constant back and forth between NYC and the schools. Because NYC has the largest public school district in the nation, there was confusion on what teachers could and could not do, e.g. which video platforms were legal to use. Tori recalls having to quickly switch from Zoom to Google Meet with little warning.  

At the beginning of quarantine, Kimberly remembers dealing with the stress by “creating more work for myself than was needed.” She found herself focused on hitting personal goals like 10,000 steps a day and deep cleaning her apartment. In contrast, Tori struggled in the beginning of lockdown. She was emotionally devastated by the school closing and her students clearing out their belongings. 

Talking with colleagues helped them cope with long hours at the computer

As quarantine progressed and e-learning took hold, Kimberly found it “draining to be on the computer all day [and that she] worked longer and later than normal with fewer breaks.” To cope, she frequently spoke with colleagues and other teacher friends to serve as a “healthy dose of commiserating and problem solving.” Tori seconded Kimberly’s experience. She found the longer hours unsustainable. Tori stopped answering students after 9pm at night for her own mental well-being. 

Having never done any remote teaching prior to COVID, Kimberly quickly realized that “you can’t read a screen like you can read a room.” She adapted her strategies of redirecting a student’s attention to fit the new virtual environment. Prior to COVID, Kimberly relied largely on non-verbal cues to bring distracted students back into the conversation, such as standing by their desk. These non-verbal cues didn’t work with Zoom. It was difficult to see which students were distracted via screen, leaving Kimberly to rely on direct messaging, emailing, or, if necessary, phone calls home. 

Tori discovered new ways to communicate with her remote students

Tori relied on some experience tutoring virtually, but agreed with Kimberly that communication between students and faculty transformed during COVID. Typically, Tori spent “a very limited amount of time in the front of the classroom.” She quickly realized that with thirty kids on Zoom, it would not be effective unless it was one big group discussion.” Now that her students were unable to physically stay after class or attend in-person office hours, Tori adapted by creating a Google Voice phone number. This phone number served as a direct liaison between Tori and her students, so that it felt more comfortable and less serious than a phone call home or an email. “To them,” Tori notes, “it felt very personal…and had a little more privacy” than a call home. “A call home in education is historically a ‘bad sign,’” even if the teacher just wants to check-in on the student. Conversations that would have typically been just a quick ‘hey, how are you doing?’ were forced to adapt to these virtual modes. This method worked well, and Tori was “surprised by a handful of kids” reaching out on the Google Voice number who hadn’t spoken much in class.

The teachers worried about the students’ well-being

The tension between maintaining their own mental health and finding ways to sense their students’ well-being was challenging for both teachers. Kimberly said both she and Tori “care about our students and tend to worry, maybe more than we should, about them and how they’re doing. We have a bunch of students in our room, but more importantly, not to sound cliche, we have a bunch of people who are going through a whole host of different things.” 

Kimberly recalled “thinking more about some students during e-learning than I would’ve in person,” because she was no longer getting the same quality visual checks. Tori adds that, “as teachers, we always have a top ten list of things that could be troubling students [and] we were abruptly presented with a brand new, totally different list.” Prior to COVID, Tori felt she could keep her students safe from 7:30 am to 2:40 pm, “but now I don’t know that. A lot of my students have unstable housing… [and] the threat of coronavirus or home issues could be totally affecting different students than those affected by, say, friend problems.”

Remote class participation

Regarding student participation in e-learning, Kimberly noticed her twelfth graders who spoke a lot in class all year, continued doing so on Zoom. Among her ninth graders, Kimberly saw more students speaking in Zoom class that were quiet throughout the school year. She attributed students’ participation to familiarity and comfort. Now, she worries that if e-learning continues, her new students in September may not feel obligated to participate because they “owe you less in the beginning of the school year.”

During this period of e-learning, Tori “was reminded of how introverted most teenagers actually are.” Among her eleventh graders, she saw the more vocal students hold back both in and out of class  “because so much weight was suddenly put on new forms of communication.” Prior to COVID, Tori’s students participated more in class, which she attributes to her students being “generally more comfortable at school.”

Both teachers missed casual talks with other teachers

During COVID, Kimberly’s school conducted a “few large faculty meetings but mostly department meetings.” One unfortunate result of faculty members working remotely was the loss of casual communication/contact. Teachers no longer bumped into colleagues who weren’t formal “friends but would interact casually”. Since Tori’s school was small, she and her colleagues were able to hold meetings between different departments in their spare time. This led to “facilitated conversations across departments that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” For example, after a meeting with the science department, one of the science teachers reached out to Tori for help preparing work for a specific student. Without the virtual meetings, this interaction likely “wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Juniors and seniors missed out on some experiences

COVID-19 hit high school juniors and seniors the hardest. Kimberly’s seniors felt devastated by the loss of senior internships, prom, and graduation. Kimberly notes that the “important part was not to minimize what they were going through because worse things were happening. It’s never a healthy model to compare traumas. We could listen; we could hear, but there was nothing we could do to fix it.”

Coming from a Title I high school, Tori’s students are “banking on scholarships that come with test scores.” Unfortunately, the New York State Regents Exams and “all school-funded college trips were cancelled.” Tori was shocked by what happened next. Upon learning that their class grades would substitute for Regents scores, “they completely stopped doing their work. It was like the floor was taken out from under them. They literally didn’t know what to do.” Tori worries “maybe we’re pushing them so much that they can’t handle change.” 

Tori was able to coax her students back into their old selves. She learned how important structure was to her students, (and to most teenagers across the world). As e-learning continues in the future, administrations need to keep this important lesson in mind.